The Moment

Strangers in Our Own Homes

The pandemic’s xenophobic discourse

Divya Victor
Graphic with alternating black and purple, and hands opening to a white space
Illustration by Laura Padilla Castellanos

I am writing for myself and strangers. This is the only way that I can do it.
gertrude stein

As we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns—the ones we don’t know we don’t know.
donald rumsfeld

i tell my four-year-old that she may, whenever she wants, smile at strangers. I began telling her this a few weeks ago, when we were walking in our neighborhood and she announced to me, with pint-sized ferocity, “If I see a stranger, I will punch him in his skin.” Raised for a third of her life under the mandate of social distancing, my child responded to the emergence of an imagined stranger with violent rejection, a fear as commonplace as it is piercing to someone like me, who is no stranger to being a stranger. When we finally settled on a park bench, I asked her what that stranger would look like. She looked at me confidently and answered, “Like Shere Khan”—the burned beast of Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book. Her fear coiled itself in my lap. I sat with its weight moving within me like an asp.

In a study published during World War II, the Austrian sociologist Alfred Schutz defined the stranger as an “adult individual of our times and civilization who tries to be permanently accepted or at least tolerated by the group which he approaches.” He cited the immigrant as his main example of the stranger. The feminist scholar and theorist Sara Ahmed argues that dominant cultures imagine the stranger as “a shape that appears to have linguistic and bodily integrity,” one that functions as a cipher for the unknowable. The stranger encroaches, breaches, transmits, and transmutes. We recognize strangers by their unrecognizability, and through our mis-recognition of them as strangers, rather than as mothers, fathers, children, partners, aunties draped in dupattas, uncles in turbans as bright as summer marigolds—rather than as, simply, beloved.

While quarantining with my family in 2020, I became obsessed with the question of how immigrants and their children might move through public spaces in the United States without losing their sense of self, direction, or safety. In the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, a long history of nationalist representations of Asian immigrants as a peril, contagion, infection, or infestation crystalized into the term “China virus,” which recalled earlier terms like “Yellow Terror” and “Dusky Peril,” as the daily newspaper Puget Sound American collectively dubbed East Asians and “dusky Asiatics” in 1906. More than a century later, I want to understand what it means for Asian American immigrants to be seen as a contagion, a threat, as strangers in our own home. After all, crimes of violent misrecognition are routinely perpetrated against South Asian Americans. In 2001, Balbir Singh Sodhi was shot outside his own gas station in Mesa, Arizona, by a violent racist who mistook him for a terrorist. In 2012, Sunando Sen was pushed under an oncoming subway train during his daily commute in Queens, New York, by a woman who made no distinction between Hindus and Muslims, and blamed both for the September 11, 2001, attacks. In 2017, Srinivas Kuchibhotla was shot at his favorite after-work bar in Olathe, Kansas, by an anti-immigrant nationalist who thought he was an undocumented Iranian. In 2021, five members of the Muslim Afzaal family were mown down by an Islamophobic man in a pickup truck in Ontario, Canada, leaving only the family’s nine-year-old son alive. Balbir ji, Sunando da, Srinivas gaaru, and the Afzaal family were strangers in the neighborhoods where they lived, worked, and owned businesses. They were seen and then unseen. First they were “recognized as not belonging, as being out of place,” as Ahmed writes, and then they were misrecognized as strangers (a terrorist, “Muslim,” “illegal”) in a way that led directly to their deaths.

Because we are seen as strangers, we are not mourned when white supremacy and nationalism steal our kith. Remembering the grief of the Sikh community after the events of September 11, the activist and faith leader Valarie Kaur wrote that when the nation prepared to go to war, it was “telling itself a story about its goodness and greatness and power to deliver justice to enemies of freedom. The fact of white supremacist hate contradicted this story, so the scope and extent of the violence, and our pain, never entered mainstream consciousness. America did not grieve with us.” In the wake of the Indianapolis shootings in 2021, I continued to witness how the supremacist imaginary forces us to participate in oppression Olympics; it asks us to hide our grief so we don’t take up more space in a nation that is already grieving the egregious historical and contemporary treatment of Black life; it asks us to unbelong ourselves from politics; it fools us into chauvinism, Brahminical supremacy, Islamophobia, and anti-Blackness, seducing us into thinking that we will be safe if we camouflage ourselves behind the national flag or don the fatigues of the dollar bill. In maintaining the fear of the stranger, nationalism finds agents for its vision of racial purity, heteropatriarchy, and anti-indigeneity. As the urban ethnographer Elijah Anderson has shown, the production of the “safe” community reproduces “white spaces,” where community members would rather patrol neighborhoods as vigilantes than eliminate the category of “stranger.”

Through poetry, I hold on to the practice of self-making in a society that would rather we destroyed all that we left behind.

I first became a stranger when I was eleven years old, in the early 1990s, after a four-hour plane ride. I migrated from Trichy, a city in India in which everyone knew my face, framed by two braids tied with black ribbon, to “cosmopolitan” Singapore, a nation being built on indentured South Asian labor. Upon becoming a stranger I had to explain myself wherever I went. Where was I from? How was my name spelled? Was I the new janitor? Would I go back to marry my uncle? Was my ponytail made of a monkey’s pubic hair? With these questions came my unsurprising truculence: the refusal to explain myself to strangers in order to make myself unstrange to them.

As we became strangers to ourselves, my family began referring to ourselves as the “two-suitcase people.” When we migrated again from Singapore, we packed our lives into the fifty pounds allotted by the airlines. In the weeks leading up to the migration, we participated in sullen acts of calculation, our hearts splitting with every loved object left behind, given to a friend, buried in the ground, or placed in the rubbish bin next to the eggshells. When we reached our destination, I dreaded unpacking my two suitcases. I would zip open and unfold the always incomplete archive of me—each shirt or document or photograph a thumbnail, a ripped citation, a puzzle piece, a souvenir of a whole person, a failed index to an incomplete book. Later, when I made new U.S.-American friends, I would ask to see their attics, their basements, their closets: the parts of their lives where they stored the ample evidence of those lives. I always felt, with equal parts envy and resentment, that I was entering the lairs of people who were convinced of their place in the world and had never had to face displacement, who had never had their homes repossessed or fields sold, who had found ways to perform their accumulation and execute sentimental retention. After we moved to Singapore and I became a stranger, I built two versions of myself—the one who was unknowable (to others) and the one who could know the unknowable one. The latter became a poet. The former I still keep with me. She collects insults and humiliations and hurts and keeps them in her pocket like sour hardboiled sweets. The site of this split—the self and the stranger—is constitutive for many, but especially so for prepubescent girls haunted by the impending blood that will separate them from their fathers and from society, will turn their male friends against them. Immigrant girls with holes full of cotton. Immigrant girls made of papers.

after we migrated from India to Singapore, I also began reading poetry. Poetry was a place to which I could go without being questioned. It made sense to me because it is a form of self-explanation with its own refusal built into it. In my favorite poems, a reader arrives as a stranger to the page because language has already been estranged from its communicative purpose. Whereas the rules of grammar and language use have been historically employed to discipline and punish occupied, displaced, and colonized subjects, poets have resisted these rules with an embodied disobedience of sequential narrative, grammatical order, and syntactical hierarchies. Poetry offered me a place where I could control, shape, anticipate, or delay the enactment of estrangement; it was a site where I could consent to my disorientation and loneliness. It was (and remains) a safe rehearsal of deeply alienating affects in a world built with white space and meaningful noise, where the interpretive responsibility falls squarely in the reader’s lap. This, to me, is analogous to the political responsibility Americans have in interpreting the crucial place of immigrants in this country.

In my own poetry, I often find myself writing about strangers, particularly about strangers who feel in some way like family— strangers I identify as kith. I may have inherited the impulse to write about others from my parents, who, in place of physical possessions, collected stories about strangers, loving them gently through narrative acts of remembrance. During my childhood, when we rode past endless paddy fields or miles of windmills in rural India, my father would slowly pull a story out of the breast pocket of his plaid shirt and unwrap it like a lemon drop: “Divvy, did I ever tell you about…?” My parents would gather up slivers of language, vocal gestures, chipping events from the boulder of the past and placing them in front of me like intricate miniatures. From this method of storytelling, I came to understand polyphony; from the repetition and variation of these stories, I understood improvisation, syncopation, citation; from the grand and ambient churn of the train’s wheels, I learned rhythm; from my father’s voice, I learned of the work of my own tongue as a teller of stories. What scarcity brought me, the immigrant, was my love for the uncontainable, irrepressible abundance of language.

In my writing, I save fragments from archives the way my parents gathered up fragments through storytelling, the way other parents keep the nubs of their child’s umbilical cord or my mother keeps my first-shorn curl of hair—as documents of an institution of the self still being built, a practice of daily fragmentation and reconstruction still under way. Through poetry, I hold on to the practice of self-making in a society that would rather we destroyed all that we left behind.

today, i am loneliest when I hear stories of South Asians told here, in the United States, stories of misrecognition that make my kith appear strangers to me, and make us into strangers to ourselves. When white folks ask me whether I know Dr. Sanjay Gupta (CNN’s chief medical correspondent), I often lie and say that he’s my cousin from my mom’s side, because it is easier to knock ignorance with a joke than it is to cry in supermarkets. All around me, folks gobble up the Islamophobic, casteist, and classist fodder of Netflix shows like Never Have I Ever, Indian Matchmaking, and The Big Day. My friends and I watch them too, but afterward we feel scooped out, hungry despite our TV binge. In this desperate scramble for popular representation, we are estranged from our own complexity, made strangers in our own living rooms, where our interior lives are narrated to us by John McEnroe or our queerness is dragged into the quicksand of conspicuous consumption. We seem, as the sociologist W. E. B. Du Bois helped us see more than a century ago, “shut out” from our own worlds by “a vast veil” created, supposedly, in our own image.

Living within the shell of stereotype and behind the mask of “model minority” caricatures, those in the South Asian diaspora often navigate public space as “known unknowns,” both shaping the fraught racial imaginary and remaining invisible. We hide our burning shame and fear of the Dalit-and Black-led struggle for prison abolition behind success stories like that of Kamala Harris; we mask our casteist, bourgeois aspirations and colorist views by pandering to the white gaze; we pretend that the absence of protections for undocumented folks is not an “Asian issue”—all to keep up the exhausting myth of the “model minority.” Cathy Park Hong writes, “Racial self-hatred is seeing yourself the way whites see you, which turns you into your own worst enemy.” We frequently ghost ourselves even when we are looking in the mirror, hoping to show up worthier, richer, fairer, and lovelier for this country.

We frequently ghost ourselves even when we are looking in the mirror, hoping to show up worthier, richer, fairer, and lovelier for this country.

Despite the amnesia encouraged by mainstream representations of South Asian lives, poetry and literature continue to house our shared refusal to forget—our refusal to become our own worst enemies. During a year that separated billions of us from our kith, when uncountable pyres burn in India because of a profitable vaccine apartheid, reading and writing poetry remained a practice through which I grappled with un-estranging myself. I lived many afternoons by the cool, declarative streams of Prageeta Sharma’s poetry collection Grief Sequence. In it, she writes, “I believe now that I am wholly an approximation of something; never quite it, never the whence.” I reread Amitava Kumar’s Bombay—London— New York, in which he describes the notebook paper rubbed with ghee, pressed against the soles of his deceased grandmother’s feet, then richly embroidered and hung like portraits in his childhood home and the houses of his relatives. I revisited old blog entries by the gender-nonconforming artist and public intellectual Alok Vaid-Menon, in which they wrote in “Missing Grandma,” about the woman who engendered and encompassed them, “i used to call her mostly inbetween things: meetings, classes, shows, destinations. she always answered.” These writers shocked me into an alertness that I began to treasure. They pulled me away from the soporific marketing of brown, femme lives and urged me into the poetics of the quotidian in which I had to be present, perpetually fingering the in-between textures of the everyday, where my own difference snags and chafes. Like the poetic methods offered to me in my parents’ storytelling about strangers, peers and elders in South Asian American literature offered me models for describing kinship as a way of knowing ourselves even as we are estranged by the state, even as we reckon with erasure and exoticization in popular narratives, even as we continue our fight against tokenism and resist our crude utility in the nation’s racial order.

Divya Victor is the author of CURB, KITH, Scheingleichheit: Drei Essays, and THINGS TO DO WITH YOUR MOUTH. She is associate professor of English at Michigan State University.
Originally published:
September 20, 2021

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